Q&A: Jimmy Smits on ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and Finding Common Ground with His Characters
Last night’s Sons of Anarchy finale was the most-watched finale the show has seen and if you saw the episode, you’ll know why. No spoilers here, but the show and series, continues to surprise and remains one of the best hours on TV.
One of this past seasons high points was Jimmy Smits. As Nero Padilla, a Mexican brothel owner and new SAMCRO partner, Smits was a longtime fan of the show said he was thrilled to join the cast. “It’s a kind of industry darling. A lot of people in our business are into the show,” he said in a recent conference call.
In this Q & A, Smits talks about how he joined the cast, finding common ground with character, working in the Star Wars universe and how, as an actor, he’s interested in “whatever comes along.”
Can you talk a bit about filming love scenes with Katie while being directed by Kurt?
Jimmy Smits: No. No, no, I didn’t have any love scenes that Kurt actually directed. Kurt only directed the final—Kurt is the creator of the show, and he writes ….
He only directed the last episode this particular season and …. There was like a kissy-kissy thing, but no. He had to deal with it in the editing bay.
How about the scene where your wife’s character holds a gun to Nero and Gemma? Was that a bit awkward to film?
Jimmy Smits: Awkward in the sense of what? What do you mean?
Because she’s your partner in real life—so was that weird?
Jimmy Smits: I mean, we’re professional actors. That’s what we do. I mean, it was—yes, in the beginning there was—the first time maybe that we rehearsed it or something it was a little strange but actually was—in a way, I thought it was really cool because the trust quotient is much higher because we all have another layer going on.
I mean, I think we were able to hit, as actors, emotional chords in that particular scene, some of which is on the editing floor. But be that as it may, we were able to hit some kind of emotional chords that—because of those relationships there.
What first drew you to the role? What was it about it that made you want to play Nero?
Jimmy Smits: Well, we didn’t know what the role was. In the beginning it was more about a vibe that I had with Kurt after meeting with him a couple of times. Paris Barclay, who is an executive and does a lot of the directing of a lot of the Sons episodes, is somebody that I know from NYPD Blue. He was one of the core directors there, and he did pretty much all of the final episodes that the Simone character was involved in. So we go way back, and we did the history there.
It so happened last year that the DGA, the Director’s Guild of America was doing a tribute for him, and because of that they invited a number of different people from all of the wonderful shows that he’s participated in—In Treatment that he was involved with and Blue and of course Sons.
So it was at that time that we were up there on the dais speaking about Paris that—you know, people know each other in the business, but they really don’t. You see each other at the award shows and stuff and we talked. The only person besides Paris that I have a comfort level with is Ron Perlman that I worked with on a couple of movies in the past. Ron is a really cool guy.
But Wanda and myself and Katie and Kurt, we spent a couple of minutes talking and—I think in a way it was out of that that the call came from Kurt that he wanted to know if I would sit down with him and just explore the possibility of—he had an idea for an arc.
At that time, I think he was formulating what he was going to do for the season and what he necessitated in terms of the spokes of the wheel of the show. So we had two or three lunch meetings. I went to his office, took me around to the set, and just started vibing [sic] about what the show needed and a character that he was interested in exploring.
That’s the way it all started. That first script wasn’t really written yet, but he had it in his head. So basically, that’s how it happened. We were fans of the show, and like you said, it does have a really loyal, core base following that are very passionate about the show. It’s not just people that are into motorcycles. It’s this whole outlaw—it’s a very passionate following.
It’s a kind of industry darling. A lot of people in our business are into the show. Like I said, I check in with a lot of different shows during the year. I watch the beginning episodes, and I’ll check in during the middle and usually see finales and stuff, but Wanda was—she was like a die-hard fan of the show probably because the fact that Kurt—besides the grittiness of the show, he writes very strong women characters.
So when that call came in and Kurt wanted to talk, she was like, “You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do this. I mean, you’ve seen the show, but you don’t know what happened.”
But you know, the third season where they did the whole Irish storyline, I think the show just jumped into another gear, you know, and it just struck me that the show is very, very cinematic in a way. They’re able to do these wonderful things and have a—that very iconic thing of outlaws.
It’s almost like a Western—like watching a Western in a lot of ways. So that was the whole beginnings of our conversations. There was a comfort level there because of Paris and Ron, and I’m very happy that it all—it’s all worked out the way it has.
I love those guys. They really are a very, very, very tight family. Without going into a lot of detail, that whole thing that happened with Opie’s character, it was—and I’m looking—I’m from the outside just trying to do my job there. It was not only what was filmed, but it was very emotional for that group during the read-throughs and those couple of weeks when those decisions were made and stuff like that.
They’re a very, very tight group that have dynamics, like every family, and I’m just very—I’m proud to have worked on it this season and given a little contribution there. And there it is.
Have there been any moments on Sons of Anarchy when you saw a particular performance or a scene and thought, “This is really great television, something that could hold its own against any show or movie out there?”
Jimmy Smits: I think what I referenced before about what I saw in season three, which really cemented for me that the show had jumped to a different gear with that whole—for lack of a better word, the whole Irish storyline that was introduced and when they went to Belfast. That whole back and forth was really quite intricate.
A lot of it, I thought that they were in Ireland for real. I was believing that they were somewhere else, and a lot of it was shot here. They did go and do some skeleton work to do exteriors out there, but that was really quite, quite wonderful—Titus Welliver, who’s a friend from NYPD Blue days, and now he came in and did a wonderful job with them. The performances there were very, very intricate by everyone involved, and jacked up the storyline to another kind of level.
Some of this stuff that Ryan—Ryan, I have a lot of respect for him as an actor, and the kind of scenes that I saw, prior to jumping on board, between him and Jax character—what Charlie does—were very, very special. Just the grittiness of the show, the grittiness of the show just sold me 100%, and I think that it—like you say—it can go up against any film or TV show out there.
How did you find common ground with your character?
Jimmy Smits: I found the common ground like I do with a lot of different characters. The research for me is probably just as fascinating as being on-set doing work every day. Those couple of months when Kurt and I were talking, I dug up my mi familia files because it’s kind of like revisiting that particular character maybe 15, 17 years later.
I went to interview people who were involved in motorcycle clubs—Latino motorcycle clubs—and spoke to a number of what we call …—so people who have been involved in the—been in the penal system who are now trying to be on the straight and narrow like that particular character—and just talked about stories that they’ve encountered and the lore that they have, and what tattoos mean when you have a—because your body is kind of like a board of your past.
Things like that, those things flesh out a character’s life in a lot of ways. You hear stuff and you’re able to—you have to be like a sponge and use what you can and how it relates because TV is kind of fluid, and things change on a week-to-week basis.
But those are the things that I do with every character. If I’m involved in a boxing movie, I’m going to see fights and learning about boxing. It’s part of what we do.
You’ve been a big part of the Star Wars universe with the prequels, and I’m just curious what your thoughts on the Disney purchases and if you think that you’ll maybe try and be involved in the new movies?
Jimmy Smits: Wow. You know, that’s interesting because I had—my kids were the ones that told me. They started texting me because they—I don’t know. They must be on blog sites or something about that.
You know, congratulations to George, because that we a mega-deal. It’s great that it will live on in a different kind of incarnation. He built that in so many ways, and not only built that franchise, but because of that—the success of the franchise—he was able to do so much for the film industry really.
This whole thing about digitalization—one of those films that I worked on was the prototypes of that HD camera was something that we were using. So he pushed the envelope in so many technical ways, not only with regard to the film industry. He’s got a lot of balls that he’s juggling, so it’s a good thing that he was able to find a way to pass that franchise on.
Of course, it should—I mean, there are more stories to tell, of course, I think. You look at the 007 franchise, and it’s gone on for 40 years. There are a lot of people that have grown up watching that, so I know that he didn’t just pass that on without a lot of caveats. There will be involvement with George down the line. As far as me is concerned, my character was gone after—episode whatever—but if they want to call, let them call.
How badly do you want to ride one of those bikes on the show?
Jimmy Smits: Oh man, you know—okay, so we just talked about George Lucas, so I’ll segue like this. So when I first had my first conversation with George, it was like, “He’s going to talk to you. He’s going to call you on the phone and he’ll talk.”
So the conversation was kind of like, “I really like your work, and I’ve watched you before, and I would like you to join our family. But this conversation is not going to continue unless you are cool with the fact that there will not be a lightsaber involved in the conversation.” So that’s the way we started that.
So similarly with Kurt, that was the whole deal. If you were listening before, I went to this thing for Paris, and then we had these great little tete-a-tete social things with Kurt and Katie and Ron and all that group. Then I got this call about—Kurt wants to have a sit-down with you.
I was like, “Okay, when is that going to happen?” So they scheduled a sit-down for a couple of weeks. Like I said, Wanda is a big fan of the show and was like, “You’ve got to get—if this is about a job, you’ve got to get into this.” So the first thing I did was I started doing my motorcycle research, and I got my motorcycle license.
So I’m riding with my stand-in, who’s been my stand-in for 20 years, and I’m getting myself all geared up for this, and we have this … to talk to Kurt. Much the same way as the Lucas thing he was like—we can talk about Paris’s thing, and he’s always been a fan, and likewise I love the work that he did on The Shield. He was like, “Okay, so before we continue this conversation, know that we’re not talking about bikes.” And I’m like, “Oh no. I just got my license.”
But who knows, a Vespa might be in Nero’s future. Who knows? Albeit to say—to be honest about this thing, I knew that there wasn’t going to be any—that bikes weren’t going to be involved with regards to this character. But in my heart, I’ve been riding and that’s just the actor in me.
If I’m going to be in a Western—even if I’m going to be riding the stagecoach wagon, I’m going to learn about horses just in case somebody says one day, “You know, maybe if Nero got on one of the bikes that fell,” and then I’m going, “Duh. Duh. I can’t ride. I don’t know how to ride.” So I’m ready. If it happens, I’m ready—even for the Vespa I’ll be ready.
Are you interested in going back on doing series television or series cable? Do you have any desires or are you looking into feature films, or just whatever comes along?
Jimmy Smits: Whatever comes along. Yes. I mean, I’m getting ready to go and do a play now, and pilot season will be coming up in January. I’m always sitting down and talking to people that are doing independent features and stuff. It depends on the project and the quotient of the people that are involved. It’s for a lot of different reasons—a particular script that resonates with me in a particular way, maybe not so much even the part but what the script has to say.
What I really like doing more than anything is …, and you have to know that this has to do with what comes on your plate because I don’t—it’s not like I get to pick and choose every single thing that I want to—there are a lot of doors that still get shut, and there are a lot of walls to still breach on a lot of different ways. But the stuff that does come across to me or stuff that I hear about or read about that I’m willing to go out there and fight for or audition—I still have to go audition and do all of that. I do have a certain leeway to choose from that group what I want to say as an artist.
In this particular circumstance, I love the fact that this particular show allows me to mix it up in a different way than TV audiences have seen me before. So that’s good. Yes.